WHAT A JAGGED LITTLE PILL

This past weekend I traveled across the country to see a musical.

And it wasn’t just any musical, but I’ll get to that.

In 1995, at age 14, I heard “Ironic” on the radio for the first time and was blown away.  This was a voice that was unlike any other I had ever heard, and I was in.  I asked my mom to order Jagged Little Pill through Columbia House, and waited the 2-3 weeks it took for them to deliver it to our house.  I put that cassette into my walkman, and became a lifelong fan of Alanis Morissette.

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The words to her songs seemed like they had been ripped right out of my head, as if she had stolen my journals and set music to them.  The third track on the album, “Perfect,” perfectly described the feelings of being a child who was being asked to live up to impossible expectations. 

Alanis Morissette and Jagged Little Pill are often associated with “anger.”  And yes, there is plenty of anger to be found on that album in songs like “You Oughta Know” and “All I Really Want,” but there’s also longing, hurt, joy, sadness, growth, acceptance, questioning and more.  And each song was a validation that it was OK to feel such things.

Also in 1995, I was introduced to musical theatre.  My high school did a Broadway Revue, where we performed songs from over a dozen musicals like Les Miserables, Damn Yankees, and Little Shop Of Horrors. 

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Again, I found a connection to understanding my own emotions through music.  The emotional complexity that songs from Les Miserables achieved didn’t hold a candle to whatever I had been exposed to on the radio in the early nineties.  Songs like “On My Own,” “I Dreamed A Dream” and “Far From The Home I Love” spoke to me in ways I could barely even understand.

And so began two love affairs with music.  With each new Alanis Morissette album (Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, Under Rug Swept, Feast On Scraps, So-Called Chaos, Flavors Of Entanglement, Havoc and Bright Lights) I continued to find songs that spoke for me.  And with each new musical I was exposed to over the years (Rent, Into The Woods, Spring Awakening, Next To Normal, Hamilton) I found connection to the art of telling a story through words and music.

When I first heard that there was going to be a musical based on Jagged Little Pill, I was skeptical.  I’ve never been a fan of “jukebox musicals,” and thought it might be a bit cheesy.  I figured it would tell the story of Alanis Morissette’s journey from Canadian pop star to American Rock Legend, and though it’s a fascinating story, I didn’t think it would do well in a musical theatre setting.

But then I began to hear the rumblings of what a Jagged Little Pill musical would actually look like.  It was to be an original story, using the songs of JLP and other songs from Alanis’ catalogue to tell the story of a family unraveling. 

I was intrigued.

Knowing that it was being mounted in Cambridge, MA I sort of shut down any chance of seeing it’s world premiere.  I figured I’d have to wait and see if it got picked up by Broadway, and then if it would go on tour, and see if maybe it would come to California.  That would take at least two or three years.

And then the reviews started coming in.  And songs were included in the production that previously only the most die-hard of fans would be familiar with (“No,” “Unprodigal Daughter.”)  And all of a sudden, I realized I HAD to see this production.  I could not wait years.

I’ve rarely traveled in my life.  I’ve visited family up the west coast in Oregon and Washington, and I’ve gone to Vegas, and I went to Nebraska for a high school theatre event.  Beyond that, my idea of traveling in the last few years has been taking a two hour drive to Palm Springs. 

And yet, I found myself going online, and researching plane tickets and Airbnbs and negotiating time off from work.  And then, it all clicked, and I bought tickets to the show, a plane ride, and an airbnb.

Initially I was going to take the trip alone, which felt liberating and also a bit lonely.  I knew I was going to have the experience of a lifetime, and I wanted to share it with someone.  Eventually Adan, who I had recently broken up with but who remains my best friend, decided to come along with me.

We took a red eye flight out of Long Beach, CA on Saturday night, and arrived in Boston at 8:30 in the morning on Sunday. Showtime was 2pm on Sunday and I had only slept about twenty minutes on the plane and was afraid I’d be groggy during the show.  So I took brief nap in the airbnb, downed an energy drink, and took a Lyft to the American Repertory Theatre. 

We arrived at the theatre about a half hour early, and bought t-shirts and hats.  We got our programs, and I didn’t look in mine because I didn’t want to be spoiled about which songs would show up and who would be singing them.

Adan and I sat apart because we bought our tickets separately.  We were both in the fourth row.  He was sitting on the right side of the theatre and I was sitting closer to center.  I sat between two sets of women:  one, a couple of young women and the other two older women.  I shared with them how far I’d traveled and then the show began.

I cannot express how much I absolutely loved this show. 

Without spoiling the story, I can say that it touched on a range of issues that have both directly and indirectly affected my life.  The show throws a lot at the audience:  gender identity, sexuality,  race identity, opioid addiction, porn addiction, familial expectations, sexual assault, and more.  And while other shows would crumble under the weight of all these issues, the music and script lift them up to be seen and exposed and examined.

And those words and music would be nothing without the brilliant cast giving them life.  Elizabeth Stanley is a wonder as “Mary Jane,” the mother who appears to have everything under control, but beyond her smiling, there is a lot of pain.  Sean Allan Krill, as her husband “Steve” conveys such vulnerability as someone who questions their own appeal based on his relationship.  His quiet strength and self-doubt was a beautiful balancing act.  Derek Klena as “Nick,” the perfect son who seems to have it all together, but who’s harboring a secret, is a strong addition to the cast.  He takes a role that could easily beCelia Gooding is amazing as “Frankie,” the adopted black daughter who’s tapped into her rage but doesn’t quite know what to do with it.  Her story sees her hurting another character who we really care about, but Gooding’s performance never makes us see her as “the bad guy.”  I saw understudy John Cardoza as “Phoenix,” the new guy in school who, like everyone else in the play, is searching for connection.  Kathryn Gallagher takes the role of “Bella,” a high school student who is dealing with sexual assault, and tears down the walls that Bella wants to build up so that we, the audience, can see the truth of the character.  She sings one of the two new songs that Alanis wrote for this musical, and it’s an instant classic.

And that brings me to Lauren Patten.  Much has been written about her role as “Jo,” a character who’s coming into their own skin with regards to gender and self.  When another character refers to Jo as a she-male, our hearts break.  From the audience, the older woman who was sitting next to me gasped when Jo was called that slur.  As a member of the LGBTQ community, it warms my heart to see the audience hone in on the character of Jo for a place of connection.  Lauren Patten as “Jo” gets to sing what is arguably Alanis Morissette’s most iconic song, “You Oughta Know,” and she delivers it with such passion, such intensity, and such emotional expertise, that she earns a mid-show standing ovation.

(On a personal note, I’m working on a show in California right now that tackles gender identity and a lot of the same issues Jagged Little Pill covers, and it’s made me even more excited to jump even deeper into the work of that show!)

The cast is rounded out by a Greek Chorus, who not only play multiple roles throughout the production, but also play the all-seeing inner voices of most of the characters.  To see the chorus screaming at one character to “Wake Up,” while telling another character that they see “Right Through You,” is a phenomenal example of what makes theatre so special.

The direction by Diane Paulus was superb.  There was so much to see onstage, and yet it never felt like too much.  I want to see it again and again so my eyes can follow each moment onstage.  The decision to have snowfall at the end of Act 1 was magical.

The book by Diablo Cody was beyond fantastic.  Cody is best known for writing Juno, Tully, and The United States Of Tara.  She is a fantastic writer, and even though this was her first time writing for the stage, she perfectly conveyed everything that is magical and possible with theatre.

These songs that Alanis wrote, touched a generation, and they are posed to do do so again.  A seemingly simple pop love song like “Head Over Feet” becomes a fascinating quartet that examines both new love and love that is falling apart.  “That I Would Be Good” (a personal favorite of mine from SFIJ) becomes three characters almost literally screaming to be accepted.

Throughout the show I was in tears.  Tears of happiness.  Tears of sorrow.  And everything in between.  During the song “Perfect,” which first spoke to me over twenty years ago, I broke down again, hearing a teenage son cry out to his mom about the unfair expectations she had put on him.  And even though I thought I was doing a good job of hiding my tears, the older lady next to me, through tears of her own, reached over and put her hand my shoulder, and I put my hand on hers, and we cried together.

All of this emotion came to a joyous relief as the show ended with a song about taking everything life throws at you and learning from it.  “You Learn,” which was never one of my standout Alanis songs, has become a theme in my life.

After the show, Adan and I shared our experience of crying through the show, and the connection we had to it.  And the ABSOLUTE LACK OF REGRET of flying across the country to experience this show.  It may not have been my most financially responsible decision, but I will never regret doing it.

We got to speak with several cast members after the show and I got my poster signed and took pictures with them.  That “fan stuff” was neat, but it was so rewarding to be able to tell them how their work had affected me.

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Something that I said to each of them, and it bears repeating here is this:

In 1995, Jagged Little Pill changed my life.  In 2018, Jagged Little Pill changed my life again.

There is a moment during a song that features a protest, that a character hold up a sign that reads:

“Tell YOUR Story.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off of that sign.  Through my writing, and my acting, and whatever other form of artistic expression I use, that is my new mantra.

I predict that this show will not end in Boston.  I happened to see it the night of the 2018 Tony Awards, and I predict that in a year or two, we’ll be seeing Jagged Little Pill sweep the Tony awards like it did the Grammy Awards in 1995. 

And I will be forever thankful to have been there to see it in it’s first incarnation.

Adan and I couldn’t spend too much time in Boston, but we made the most of it, and fell in love with this historic city.  I will be back.  And when this show hopefully goes to New York, I’ll go there too.  I’m a fan for life.

This has been long.  Thank you for making it through this. 

“Swallow it down, what a jagged little pill.”

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